In the shadow of redevelopment, one area struggles to thrive

By Burk Krohe

Just north of Bluemont Avenue, in the shadow of the city’s north-end redevelopment, sits North Third Street. The area, which historically has featured a montage of fast food and other dining places, used to be one of the busiest areas of the town around the lunch hour.

Customers still come.  But business owners on the stretch are increasingly concerned about the state of the street, saying it is becoming rundown—not in keeping with the city’s image.

Central to the matter is the proposal to extend McCall Road across Tuttle Creek Boulevard to Fourth Street. The project has been talked about for several years — as recently as 2011 — but it has never gained any traction. Ostensibly, the extension would mean more business on the stretch because of increased traffic flow. It would also justify improvements to the businesses there. But Mike Hufnagel, owner of Dairy Queen on that street, said business owners in the area are unwilling to make improvements until they know the extension is a reality.

“My predicament is, of course, Dairy Queen is insisting we remodel our facilities to compete with our competitors,” Hufnagel said.

He said he likely isn’t the only one facing that dilemma, speculating it could have been a reason the Kentucky Fried Chicken closed down the street a while ago.

City officials say they are paying attention.  “I think it still is a very viable project and long term, it’s something that will have to be done,” city manager Ron Fehr said.

About a year ago, the city public works department presented city commissioners with a preliminary design concept. Funding for the improvements were available through the Kansas Department of Transportation. A category known as a “Five-Year Plan for Surface Transportation,” which would have tapped federal funds, could have been used.

But the city still would have been responsible for 100 percent of the cost of professional services to design the project, acquire right-of-way and relocate utilities, plus a percentage of the cost of construction and construction observation services. That’s where the project wavered.

“One of the things that was a real stumbling block as a result of that was high cost of acquisition,” Fehr said. To complete the project, both commercial and residential properties along Third and Fourth Streets would have to be obtained, and while the individual properties are not expensive, at least a couple are owner-occupied houses where the relocation cost would substantially outweigh the actual value of the homes. Estimates have placed the potential cost of obtaining the entire needed right-of-way as high as $6.5 million.

Mayor Jim Sherow described that price as “astronomical.” The cost of design services, relocation of a 24-inch water line and streetscaping totaled about $3.8 million. “Until we find the means to do that and lower the expenses we see coming up in front of us, that’s going to have to wait,” Sherow said.

Sherow said he knows it’s an issue that will need to be addressed eventually and appreciates the concern. But he said essentially the city’s hands are tied by its finances. Hufnagel also respects the city’s position, but said the city started on this course when it initiated the north end redevelopment a decade ago and should see it through. He feels that the development has been uneven because the city put funds into the north end just across the street but has let N. Third Street “deteriorate.”

“I guess I was really upset this summer when started having used equipment being displayed on the street,” Hufnagel said.

Hufnagel said that is not the image the city has been working toward with its redevelopment efforts in recent years. He said the problem can’t continue to be ignored.

As an interim solution, the city removed the signal at Third and Bluemont and installed a median, restricting left-hand turns from Third Street onto Bluemont. Fehr said those changes helped relieve some congestion at the Bluemont and Tuttle Creek Boulevard intersection. He also noted that the city has requested funding to add a left turn lane from McCall onto Tuttle Creek Boulevard. He said it will help the flow of traffic at that intersection.

City officials and city commissioners have also suggested that a private developer might be able to turn around the area, but Hufnagel views that as unlikely.

“We’re small businessmen,” Hufnagel said. “We don’t have the funds to do that.”

Fehr said there might be a planning effort to look north of Bluemont, but it’s still uncertain. Hufnagel said he is uncertain as well. He said at a certain point, business owners in the area will have to make a decision about whether it’s worth it to stay. It’s a harsh reality considering what Hufnagel has put into his Dairy Queen.

“I would hate to have to give it up.”

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